As companies are pushed to pay for internships and work placements, Chuka Umunna — a former employment lawyer, has run an ad requesting someone work for free … for a year.
ARTICLE UPDATE 16:48
Within a few hours of publication the Labour leadership issued a reminder to all MPs that unpaid internships were against party policy – seemingly a message that the leadership did not buy Umunna’s explanation that as an unpaid industry placement, it was ok…
The maverick Labour backbencher — a former employment lawyer, finds himself in hot water again over unpaid work. His office recently put out an ad at the University of Leeds for a seemingly run-of-the-mill political office job, responsibilities include to:
‘research a wide variety of policy issues and constituency enquiries, and prepare letters and briefings…enquiries and casework from constituents…research and ad hoc support tasks’.
The ad is for a ‘Year in Industry’ student placement; his office will cover transport costs, but no wages for the whole placement, despite the nature of the work undertaken. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority — the body that regulates MPs’ financial matters, states that an employee at ‘Administration 1’ (previously junior secretary) working in London must be paid a minimum £19,013 for a year’s work. The placement appears to have curiously similar responsibilities to those of a junior secretary.
It’s not the first time Umunna has been criticised for unpaid work, in 2011 his office was reported to have put out ads for four unpaid internships while he was shadow business secretary, but this practice in his office has now ceased according to Umunna.
While many universities have systems whereby employment placements are counted as part of a standard degree, in the UK an industry placement often means extending your university degree by a whole year (and most of the associated costs you’d expect).
Even by those standards, asking for someone to work for a whole year unpaid is galling. Part of Umunna’s defence is that students would be receiving Student Finance loans to cover the extra costs (for an extra year of ‘study’). However, the University of Southampton, for instance, claims that for its students ‘most placements are paid with average salaries between £15,000 and £18,000’.
The controversy will likely be more fuel for his internal enemies — Umunna has frequently rebelled against Jeremy Corbyn; and it will disappoint his own supporters trying to regain momentum within the party. It is also a tactical blunder, as Umunna has been a vocal proponent of Labour adopting European Economic Area (EEA) membership as party policy — a pitch which Progress had gone to great lengths to frame as a socialist issue of economic vulnerability.
It also looks poor in the context of historical and frequent remarks Umunna has made on wages and employment, stating in 2014:
‘We have to reduce the incidence of low paid work in Britain and our plans to strengthen the minimum wage will help us do that’.
And in 2015:
‘I am proud that the last Labour Government, in the face of the then Conservative opposition, introduced the national minimum wage in the first place, when people in our country were earning as little as £1 an hour… I have no doubt the reaction of the employer concerned will be to say “we comply with the law”, but surely what it needs to understand is that the British public expect a lot more from it’.
There is rightful resentment particularly among students about the proliferation of unpaid work, and expecting people at the start of their careers to be able to live at a financial loss while taking internships — often in London. But a year-long London placement would be out of reach for all but the wealthiest/and or London-based, and seemingly conflicts with the values of the Labour Party.
Umunna responded to the controversy on Twitter with the following:
‘The Leeds University placement is a structured part of politics sandwich-course defrees at the university, and takes place on the strict condition that students receive Student Finance throughout. The scheme, and others like it, are run collaboratively by MPs and universities, and gives students supported work experience as part of their university degree.
In addition to the Student Finance students receive while undertaking a placement, as detailed in the advert, my office will reimburse travel expenses for a student travel card to minimise expenses. I do not and would not offer a long term placement where a student is not supported and left financially penalised.
Unfortunately IPSA do not provide additional resources for MPs to recruit interns on a paid basis, though the Parlimentary Labour Party has always argued strongly for them to do so. I strongly believe that interns should be paid, and, for that reason, I do not have any unsupported interns working in the office despite the many requests received. For many years, my office has only accepted students undertaking work experience as part of supported university schemes, or short work experience placements from the schools in my constituency’.